The Surveillance State: Knowing Every Bit About You

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No one ever accused Jeremy Bentham of thinking small. The early 18th-century British philosopher, social reformer, and co-founder of the celebrated philosophical school of Utilitarianism, Bentham was known for his unconventional ideas. Like many self-styled progressive thinkers of his age, Bentham expended a considerable amount of energy dreaming up new ways to use the power of the state to protect private citizens from their own alleged follies.

The concept of the Panopticon was probably Bentham’s best-known brainchild. An extravagant idea for its time, it has proven an enduring metaphor in our time and – far more importantly – prefigured our modern obsession with high-tech surveillance. Derived from Greek roots that mean “all-seeing,” Bentham’s Panopticon was a building designed to house many people in close quarters whose rooms were so configured that a central authority, using a system of tubes and mirrors, could keep every inmate under constant surveillance. The Panopticon concept could be applied to prisons, factories, or any place where large numbers of people would live or work in close quarters. “Morals reformed – health preserved – industry invigorated – instruction diffused – public burthens [burdens] lightened – economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied – all by a simple idea in architecture,” Bentham enthused, proclaiming that his Panopticon represented “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” The energetic Bentham tried to persuade the British government to let him design a Panopticon prison, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Although he managed to persuade Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger of the Panopticon’s potential, Pitt’s successor shut down the project.

But Bentham’s premise – of a system of comprehensive state surveillance to guarantee a pliant and docile citizenry – is still with us, magnified by the potency of 21st-century technology and zealously promoted the world over, but especially in Western nations, like Great Britain and the United States, that once viewed such state activities as abhorrent and dangerous to liberty. A decade after the defining crisis of our era, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States of America is on the verge of becoming a Panopticon society, with powers of state surveillance far beyond the most fevered imaginings of Bentham and fellow pre-modern utopians.

Panopticon Society

In the sagebrush desert of Bluffdale, Utah, in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, a vast new federal surveillance and intelligence processing center is being erected. The so-called Utah Data Center, operated by the National Security Agency, will occupy more than a million square feet when it becomes operational sometime next year. Within its ultra-secure perimeter, surveillance on a scale never before achieved will be carried out, of a vast array of digital communications – cellphone conversations, e-mails, Google searches, and the like – both on foreign and domestic soil. Thanks to significant (and highly classified) advances in decryption technology, coupled with unprecedented supercomputing power, the new facility will be the nerve center for near-total surveillance capabilities over hundreds of millions of Americans. If the Utah Data Center fulfills it ominous potential, the cherished American right to privacy will have no more substance.

But the Bluffdale facility is merely the culmination of an aggressive new effort to bring all of Americans’ private activities under at least potential surveillance by the feds, an effort undertaken soon after the 9/11 attacks. The first attempt to create what New York Times columnist William Safire called “computer dossiers on 300 million Americans” was launched in 2002. Under the leadership of John Poindexter, former National Security Advisor under Ronald Reagan, the Information Awareness Office (IAO) was created within the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Its goal, well-publicized at the time, was “total information awareness,” the warrantless compilation of vast databases on the private financial activities and communications of every single American – their credit card activity, e-mails, social networks, phone calls, airline ticket purchases, car rentals, and so forth. This data would then be analyzed to look for suspicious patterns of behavior, evidence of potential terrorist activity.

From the outset, DARPA and the IAO generated a lot of bad publicity, driven in no small measure by the former’s genuinely spooky choice of logo: the all-seeing eye atop a pyramid (also depicted on the back of the dollar bill) gazing godlike at the entire world, accompanied by the motto “Cientia est Potentia” (“Knowledge is Power”). By 2003, the public and congressional hue and cry over what was transparently an extra-constitutional program had become so great that Congress officially defunded the IAO.

But like the stereotyped villain in a slasher film that cannot be killed, much of the work carried out by the IAO was merely transferred to other branches of America’s vast security establishment. While Congress tried to stipulate that none of the new tools being developed could be used against American citizens or on American soil, the drive to develop more powerful supercomputers with the ability to compile more and more comprehensive data profiles of anybody, anywhere, continued throughout the last decade. And it is by no means clear whether the federal government did, in fact, refrain from spying on its own citizens during that period; if the testimony of certain disgruntled former NSA employees is to believed, quite the opposite is true. According to William Binney, a former senior cryptographer and mathematician at the NSA, the storied and notoriously closemouthed security agency has systematically flouted and circumvented all congressional limits on intelligence gathering ever since 9/11, ignoring in some cases restrictions on spying on Americans that date from the post-Watergate era. Speaking of the launching of “warrantless wiretapping” soon after 9/11, Binney, who resigned in disgust after four decades of code breaking, did not mince words. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” he told Wired magazine’s James Bamford. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.”

Toys for Tracking Us

According to Binney, the program, codenamed Stellar Wind, intercepted without warrant not only domestic phone calls but domestic e-mails as well. At the very beginning, the NSA was intercepting 320 million domestic phone calls per day – and the number quickly expanded. Bamford relates:

According to Binney – who has maintained close contact with agency employees until a few years ago – the taps in the secret rooms dotting the country are actually powered by highly sophisticated software programs that conduct “deep packet inspection,” examining Internet traffic as it passes through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables at the speed of light.

The software, created by a company called Narus that is now part of Boeing, is controlled remotely from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland and searches US sources for target addresses, locations, countries, and phone numbers, as well as watch-listed names, keywords, and phrases in email. Any communication that arouses suspicion, especially those to or from the million or so people on agency watch lists, are automatically copied or recorded and then transmitted to the NSA.

The scope of surveillance expands from there, Binney says. Once a name is entered into the Narus database, all phone calls and other communications to and from that person are automatically routed to the NSA’s recorders. “Anybody you want, route to a recorder,” Binney says. “If your number’s in there? Routed and gets recorded.” He adds, “The Narus device allows you to take it all.” And when the Bluffdale facility is completed, whatever is collected will be routed there for storage and analysis.

According to Binney, one of the deepest secrets of the Stellar Wind program – again, never confirmed until now – was that the NSA gained warrantless access to AT&T’s vast trove of domestic and international billing records, detailed information about who called whom in the US and around the world. As of 2007, AT&T had more than 2.8 trillion records housed in a database at its Florham Park, New Jersey, complex.

Verizon was also part of the program, Binney says, and that greatly expanded the volume of calls subject to the agency’s domestic eavesdropping. “That multiplies the call rate by at least a factor of five,” he says. “So you’re over a billion and a half calls a day.” (Spokespeople for Verizon and AT&T said their companies would not comment on matters of national security.)

The NSA also has the ability to eavesdrop on telephone conversations in real time, whenever it deems appropriate. In the months and years following 9/11, any excuse would do, especially for family members abroad calling home to the United States. Adrienne J. Kinne, who worked as a voice interceptor for the NSA both before and after the 9/11 attacks, told Wired, “Basically all rules were thrown out the window, and they would use any excuse to justify a waiver to spy on Americans.” Journalists working overseas were routinely eavesdropped upon whenever they called their families stateside. “A lot of time you could tell they were calling their families,” Kinne admitted, “incredibly intimate, personal conversations.” Kinne likened the practice to finding someone’s personal diary and going through it.

But the NSA’s suffocating blanket of surveillance has one major hole – the ability of modern encryption protocols like the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to resist decryption, even by the most powerful supercomputers available. The solution? Build still more powerful supercomputers, machines capable of carrying out one quadrillion (1015) operations per second, a capability known in industry jargon as a “petaflop.” Accordingly, what has been characterized as nothing less than a modern-day Manhattan Project, the High Productivity Computing Systems program, was begun in 2004 to develop computers with just such a capacity. That the research and development for the project was and is being carried out at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee – the same place where uranium was enriched for the first atomic bombs – is perhaps an unintended irony. But this time around, America’s best and brightest are devising a superweapon not for deployment against a distant foreign military power, but against our own citizens, to finally ensure that any degree of privacy whatsoever can be breached by Washington’s all-seeing eye.

By all accounts, the High Productivity Computing Systems program has been a stunning success. An unclassified program at Oak Ridge produced the so-called “Jaguar,” an upgraded Cray XT5 supercomputer that clocked in as the world’s fastest in 2009 – at a rate of 1.75 petaflops. A top-secret program, also at Oak Ridge, has reputedly created machines faster still, whose exact capabilities remain a closely guarded secret.

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